• December 2017

    Camelot’s Rose

In the medical history books, seeing the name of Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, is not at all uncommon. From establishing the first health insurance plan during the Depression to performing many ‘firsts’ (most recently the first baby in the U.S. born to a uterine transplant patient), Baylor Dallas’ place in healthcare history is well-known.   

When it comes to significant events in American history like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though, usually the only hospital mentioned is Parkland – and with good reason. However, on that fateful November day and throughout the years of investigations that followed, one Baylor Dallas-trained pathologist played a significant, if little-known role. In fact, had his advice been heeded on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, the countless conspiracy theories that sprung up in the aftermath may never have gained a foothold.

Thrust into the Spotlight

South Dakota native Earl Rose, MD, completed the Baylor Dallas surgical pathology residency in 1957. After finishing additional training in clinical and forensic pathology at other institutions, Dr. Rose – who also was a lawyer – accepted the position of Dallas County Medical Examiner in early 1963.      

Fast forward six months to November 22, 1963, and Dr. Rose was eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S. Secret Service. He was ensconced in the doorway of the room at Parkland holding President Kennedy’s body, trying to prevent the agents from removing it before an autopsy could be performed. It was Texas law that an autopsy be performed in the county in which a murder took place. Moreover, critical evidence could have been collected while the assassin was still at-large.  

But Mrs. Kennedy – and others – insisted that her husband be immediately flown back to Washington, DC.

“You can’t break the chain of evidence,” Dr. Rose reportedly told them.

After a heated argument, Dr. Rose was made to step aside. Later, the pathologists in Betheseda, MD, conducting the autopsy – who didn’t have access to the president’s clothes or the doctors who operated on Kennedy – admitted they had rushed the exam.  

There were claims at the time that Dr. Rose was threatened with a gun by the Secret Service – and another that said he had to be physically removed. After decades of silence on the matter, in the 1990s, Dr. Rose dismissed some of those reports.

However, he also explained that beyond both the law and having access to the surgeons and other physical evidence, another reason he was so insistent on the autopsy being performed in Dallas was because it, “would have been free of any perceptions of outside influence.”  

Autopsies on Other Key Actors

Dr. Rose also performed the autopsies on police officer J.D. Tibbit, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby in the days and years that followed. By 1968, he had enough drama and controversy and accepted a position teaching pathology at the University of Iowa.

But his move to Iowa didn’t take him entirely out of the JFK conspiracy theory cottage industry. His Oswald autopsy was brought under a microscope with the publication of a book in the 1970s claiming that it was Russia who ordered the assassination, and a Russian spy was buried in Oswald’s place.  

Among the central pieces of “evidence” cited in the book was a mastoidectomy scar that was on the left side of Oswald’s skull documented in his military records but not in Dr. Rose’s autopsy report. The book caused such a sensation that it eventually led to the exhumation of Oswald’s body from its Tarrant County grave to be reexamined in 1981.

And rather than Parkland, the exam took place at the Baylor Dallas morgue. Not only did it have the necessary equipment, but it only had one entrance, making it easier to keep media away. 

As it turned out, Oswald was buried in Oswald’s grave.  

While the exhumation eliminated but one serpent of the JFK-assassination-conspiracy-theory Medusa, had Dr. Rose’s admonition to perform the autopsy in Dallas been heeded 55 years ago, who knows if such a sprawling beast would have ever been birthed in the first place.